Start simple

by Tom Albrighton 4 July 2011 Copywriting, Tone of voice

Pedantry never sleeps. During a recent weekend away in London, I noticed two instructive examples of copywriting from opposite ends of the clarity spectrum.

The first was seen above the hand dryer in the loos at the Princess Diana Memorial Park, of all places. (Sorry for the rough image – it was a bit dark in there.)



Prolonged, continuous usage causes overheating of this equipment. Its subsequent, frequent breakdowns are costly to repair.

Thank you for your cooperation.

The writer might have got a better result if they’d written down what they wanted to say in the simplest, most conversational way:

This dryer is not for drying clothes

If it’s used for a long time, it breaks down, and costs us a lot of money to repair.

Thank you.

Arguably, that would have been fit for purpose as it stood. Another option would be to anthromorphise the dryer as the speaker, a twee approach but arguably the right one in a child-centric environment:

I’m for drying hands, not clothes

If you use me too much, I break down – and that costs the park-keepers a lot of money.


The problem, here, I think, was that the reader started off thinking about the end point. Aware that they were writing an official notice, they reached for a bureaucratic tone. But the result is so complex, so officious, that I question how many people will understand it at all.

That means that the whole project is doomed – it destroys value rather than adding it. And all for want of a few simple words.

Say it straight

A much more productive approach is to express your message in the simplest, plainest way possible, then knead it into the shape you want. Luke Sullivan expresses this as ‘say it straight, then say it great’.

Don’t worry about how the words sound – indeed, don’t even think in terms of a headline, or a tagline, or whatever the end product is. Nobody need ever hear or see your ‘workings’. Just get the essentials down on paper and start working with them.

My second example, which is a van I saw in East Dulwich, shows the power of ‘just saying it’ without worrying about tone:


It could hardly be more simple and direct. And yet it serves the purpose – we’re talking about a ‘best price’ offer, and combining the product with the ad (and total price transparency) means that ‘what you see is what you get’. The finishing touch is the imperative ‘hire this’, which gives much more oomph than something passive like ‘van for hire’.

OK, it probably won’t win anything at Cannes. But it does show that if you want a compelling message at the end, you have to be simple at the start.

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